2021 NFL Free Agents Who Won't Live Up to Their Contracts

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2021

2021 NFL Free Agents Who Won't Live Up to Their Contracts

0 of 8

    Bryan Woolston/Associated Press

    While the 2021 NFL year won't officially begin until 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, the free-agent frenzy is already underway. The legal contract window opened at 12 p.m. ET on Monday, and teams wasted little time scooping up free agents with contract agreements.

    As is typically the case, many of the early free-agent contracts carry a lot of financial value. As is also typically the case, at least a few of them aren't quite going to measure up to the dollar amounts. Teams often overpay to land talent early in the open market, and here, we'll examine which may have overpaid most.

    Factors like player performance and potential, positional value and contract terms will be considered here.

    It should be noted that we're not condemning any of these deals or saying any of these players are bad. However, overpaying for a good player, possibly to fill a vital need, is still overpaying, and there's a good chance some teams will look back on these deals with just a hint of distaste.

RB Aaron Jones

1 of 8

    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    The Green Bay Packers actually locked up running back Aaron Jones before the start of the contact window. His agent, Drew Rosenhaus, told ESPN's Adam Schefter that the deal is for four years and $48 million with a $13 million signing bonus.

    Jones is a fantastic running back. He led the league in rushing touchdowns in 2019 and has topped the 1,000-yard mark in each of the last two seasons. He's also a capable pass-catcher and should help the Packers maximize their remaining window with quarterback Aaron Rodgers.

    However, running back contracts don't tend to age well—the Dallas Cowboys probably regret giving Ezekiel Elliott a huge second deal—and $12 million per season is a lot to pay a guy who may soon be splitting time with 2020 second-round pick AJ Dillon.

    Jones is now the sixth-highest-paid running back in terms of annual value. He may be a top-six running back, but he's not going to live up to his price point if he starts ceding significant playing time to Dillon.

OG Joe Thuney

2 of 8

    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Interior offensive linemen can be underrated since they're not regularly handling the league's best edge-rushers, and Joe Thuney is one of the most reliable in the league. He never missed a start for the New England Patriots and played at least 97 percent of the offensive snaps every year.

    However, Thuney's pending contract with the Kansas City Chiefs may still represent a sizeable overpay. According to TheMMQB's Albert Breer, Thuney is set to earn $80 million over five years with $48 million in practical guarantees over the first three seasons.

    If Thuney's deal becomes official, he'll be the second-highest-paid guard based on annual salary. The only guard earning more is Brandon Scherff, who was franchise-tagged by the Washington Football Team for the second straight year.

    Scherff, by the way, is coming off an All-Pro season and is a four-time Pro Bowler. Thuney has never been named to a Pro Bowl while playing just one fewer season.

    Availability means a lot in the NFL, but the Chiefs are set to pay Thuney like one of the game's truly elite interior lineman. In reality, he may not be one.

TE Jonnu Smith

3 of 8

    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    In years past, the New England Patriots haven't been major players in early free agency. They have been this year, however, and they've doled out some substantial contracts.

    According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, they are set to hand tight end Jonnu Smith a four-year, $50 million deal with $31.25 million guaranteed.

    Smith is a solid pass-catching tight end. He had 448 receiving yards with the Tennessee Titans last season. Eight of his 41 receptions were for touchdowns, and 25 went for first downs. However, there's a big difference between being a reliable chain-mover and a truly elite game-changer in the mold of Travis Kelce or George Kittle.

    Yet New England is set to pay Smith like one of the game's elites. If the deal becomes official, Kelce and Kittle will be the only tight ends earning more annually.

    We're likely to look back on this deal as we do the one Austin Hooper signed with the Cleveland Browns in 2020. He inked a four-year, $42 million deal that briefly topped the market but has yet to live up to it after posting just 436 yards and four touchdowns in his inaugural season with the team.

Edge Matt Judon

4 of 8

    Bryan Woolston/Associated Press

    Another new Patriot makes our list. This time, it's edge-defender Matt Judon.

    According to Schefter, his deal is for four years and $56 million with $32 million guaranteed. While an annual salary of $14 million won't make him one of the league's highest-paid pass-rushers, it's still a premium price for a high-floor, low-ceiling player.

    As is the case with Smith, this one could look like a bad deal in the not-too-distant future.

    "The Patriots are paying top-of-market prices for players coming off their best seasons to play major roles. That's the opposite of how it's done. Today is a disaster for them that's being reported as a triumph," Mike Tanier of Pro Football Network tweeted.

    Judon made the Pro Bowl in each of the past two seasons, but he's never been an elite pass-rusher. His best season came in his contract year of 2019, during which he produced 9.5 sacks. He had just six sacks in 2020 while producing 32 quarterback pressures.

    With Judon potentially approaching the end of his prime—he'll turn 30 next offseason—he'll have a hard time living up to his new contract with the Patriots.

WR Nelson Agholor

5 of 8

    David Becker/Associated Press

    According to Schefter, the Patriots have agreed to a two-year, $26 million deal with Nelson Agholor, which means another New England addition makes our list. 

    To be fair, receiver was a significant need for New England after Jakobi Meyers led the position group with 729 receiving yards in 2020, and Agholor played well last season. In his lone campaign with the Las Vegas Raiders, he produced 896 yards and eight touchdowns.

    However, he was painfully inconsistent during his five seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles. He never reached the 800-yard mark and had fewer than 500 yards in three of his five campaigns.

    Agholor has also been credited with nine drops over the past two years.

    While he does have some upside, his production does not justify an annual salary of $13 million. That price point puts him less than $2 million behind Davante Adams and Stefon Diggs, and that will be difficult to live up to.

Edge Romeo Okwara

6 of 8

    Leon Halip/Associated Press

    Detroit Lions pass-rusher Romeo Okwara had a breakout campaign in 2020, finishing with 10 sacks and 31 quarterback pressures. They rewarded him with a new three-year, $39 million deal, according to Schefter.

    While there's nothing wrong with betting on a player's upside, Okwara's past production suggests he'll struggle to live up to a $13 million-per-year price point. A 2016 undrafted free agent signed by the New York Giants, he has either been inconsistent or unproductive for most of his career.

    Okwara's 2020 sack total equaled his combined output from the previous four seasons. While he did have 7.5 sacks in 2018—his first campaign with the Lions—he has only really produced in contract years. His 2018 performance led to a two-year extension, but he disappeared in 2019. Despite appearing in 14 games, he recorded just 1.5 sacks and 15 quarterback pressures.

    While it's not necessarily fair to paint Okwra as a player who only produces in contract seasons, his inconsistency is alarming. If that continues, there's no way he will live up to his new deal.

Edge J. J. Watt

7 of 8

    Eric Christian Smith/Associated Press

    Another player who signed before the start of the contact period, pass-rusher J.J. Watt got a jump on the market and landed a lucrative two-year, $28 million deal that includes $23 million guaranteed. That would be a fair price if he was still a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, but he isn't.

    Watt had just five sacks and 29 quarterback pressures in 2020. Those aren't numbers that justify a $14 million annual salary or that level of guaranteed money.

    While he is likely a future Hall of Famer, the Arizona Cardinals aren't getting him in his prime. They're getting the version who will turn 32 later this month and has a significant injury history. Yes, he played all 16 games last season, but he's only done so in two of his last five campaigns.

    There's a chance that playing opposite Chandler Jones in Arizona's 13th-ranked defense will help Watt rebound to some degree. However, the reality is that the Cardinals are paying him like the player he once was and not the player he currently is.

    Watt was one of the biggest names on the free-agent market, but it's hard to envision him living up to either the hype or his contract.

DT Shelby Harris

8 of 8

    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos are bringing back defensive tackle Shelby Harris on a new three-year deal. According to Rapoport, it will be worth $27 million.

    While Harris' pending contract isn't as egregious as some others on this list, his $9 million annual salary will make him the 18th-highest-paid defensive tackle in the league annually. That's a lot for a solid space-eating interior lineman, which is precisely what he is.

    Harris has never been to a Pro Bowl, and he isn't a consistent interior pass-rusher. While he did have six sacks in 2019, he only has 16.5 sacks in six seasons and 36 quarterback pressures over the last three.

    He does have 23 career passes defended, but he also has just two forced fumbles and 35 quarterback hits and will turn 30 before the start of the 2021 season. He is neither a young player with upside nor a consistent impact defender, and he will likely struggle to live up to his price point.


    Cap and contract information via Spotrac unless otherwise noted. Advanced statistics from Pro Football Reference.